Numerical modelling of geotechnical applications requires appropriate soil models to obtain realistic and accurate results. In this respect, a simplified model like the linear elastic perfectly plastic Mohr-Coulomb model can be regarded as inappropriate, since it lacks important features of real soil behavior. If you are still addicted to Mohr-Coulomb, it’s time to move on. This blog explains why, and what are the better alternatives.
Compared to other ‘engineering materials’ like steel and concrete, soil is a much more complex material. Typical ‘engineering properties’ of soil, such as ‘strength’ and ‘stiffness’ depend on many other properties and on the particular conditions that apply in the situation at hand. For example, soil strength and stiffness depend on the stress level, the loading direction, the strain level, short or long term, density, over-consolidation, and several more. Stress-dependency and strain-dependency of stiffness and strength are some of the ‘features of soil behavior’. Other features are compaction and dilatancy, drained or undrained behavior (the latter involves a simultaneous change of pore water pressure), creep, anisotropy, structure, and several more.
Geotechnical Finite Element (FE) programs, like PLAXIS 2D/3D Ultimate, use constitutive models to model the mechanical behavior of soil and rock layers. Constitutive models, or in short, soil models or rock models, are a theoretical framework for the relationship between stress and strain (and time); it is the qualitative description of the soil or rock behavior in the computer program. The linear elastic perfectly plastic Mohr-Coulomb model is a simple combination of Hooke’s law of isotropic elasticity and the generalized Mohr-Coulomb failure criterion formulated in a non-associated plasticity framework. This sounds complicated, but, in fact, it isn’t; it provides only a bi-linear stress-strain relationship, which is far from realistic, because it lacks many features of real soil behavior.
More advanced soil models, such as the Soft Soil model and the Hardening Soil model with small-strain stiffness (HSsmall), are based upon more complicated theories. They have been validated based on many test results and several real-life applications. As a user, you do not need to fully understand the theories behind, as long as you are aware of the capabilities and limitations of the models and how to determine the corresponding parameters. Some constitutive models are more appropriate for soft soils; others are more appropriate for harder types of soils and some models are applicable for rocks or other engineering materials; and there are also special models for dynamic applications (earthquake simulations) or for temperature-dependent applications. It is important to choose the right model in accordance with the type of soil and the features of soil behavior that are considered relevant for the application at hand.
Images shown below: Staged undrained construction of an embankment on soft soil
Besides the model itself (theoretical framework; qualitative description of soil behavior), the model parameters are there to quantify the soil properties (stiffness, strength, etc.) in the constitutive model. Admittedly, more advanced soil models generally have more parameters that need to be determined based on site investigation data, which is usually scarce. This is a reason why some engineers stick to simple models, because they think it will cost them less time and effort to determine the parameters. However, appearances are deceptive, since parameters in a simple model cannot be determined unambiguously for most practical applications. On the other hand, parameters in advanced soil models have a much more precise meaning and can mostly be determined unambiguously for each soil layer.
Simple models lack important features of soil behavior. In some cases, this may lead to dangerous situations. Some examples:
There may be ways to avoid this dangerous behavior of simple models by means of ‘engineering judgment’. However, it is better to use more advanced soil models and rather spend your time on a proper determination of the model parameters. The model does then most of the job for you.
Image shown below: Staged excavation, supported by an anchored retaining wall
After reading this contribution, you should consider the use of advanced constitutive models in your next geotechnical finite element application. In the next series of blogs the focus will be on some such models with the purpose to take away the fear and make you more confident of using them.
An important hurdle is the determination of model parameters, especially since good site investigation is often lacking in an early stage of a project. It should be mentioned that preliminary work on a tool to help you with parameter determination of advanced soil models, was published in a Geostrata article two years ago by Brinkgreve (2019). Starting from basic field test data (CPT, SPT), the tool uses chains of correlations to propose parameter values, and it transparently shows how they are calculated. This shall stimulate the use of advanced constitutive models and it shall lead to more consistent results from geotechnical finite element calculations.
Credits: Virtuosity Software
Brinkgreve RBJ (2019). “Automated Model and Parameter Selection”. Geostrata Jan/Feb. 2019. ASCE Geo-Institute. 38-43.
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